Benetech, Macmillan Pioneer Effort to Make All Digital Books ‘Born...

Special Education

Benetech, Macmillan Pioneer Effort to Make All Digital Books ‘Born Accessible’

By Tony Wan     Apr 22, 2019

Benetech, Macmillan Pioneer Effort to Make All Digital Books ‘Born Accessible’

There are more than 711,000 books—and counting—in Bookshare, a digital reading platform for people with reading barriers including dyslexia, blindness or cerebral palsy. Working with more than 850 publishers across the world, the library adds as many as 100,000 titles every year, according to Brad Turner, vice president and general manager of global education and literacy at Benetech, the nonprofit that runs Bookshare.

But even at that laudable clip, Benetech is falling behind. In 2015, the U.S. publishing industry put out 339,000 new books. The number of self-published works is now more than double that figure. That adds up to more than a million new books each year. “We just can’t keep up with the number of books that are published,” says Turner.

The growing gap is a concern for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based organization, which was founded in 1989 and operates according to the slogan, “software for social good.” Among its main social-impact missions is to ensure that educational texts—print or digital—are accessible to every learner, regardless of impairment or disability.

Instead of Benetech steering the effort to convert books into accessible formats, it is taking a different tack: get publishers to embed accessibility features as part of the production process, rather than an afterthought. “If we can push that accessibility work upstream to the publisher, all of a sudden that book is born accessible,” says Turner.

To support this effort, Benetech officially launched the Global Certified Accessible (GCA) program earlier this year, and last week Macmillan Learning became the first publisher to earn the certification. That label means that all of Macmillan’s future digital textbooks should meet the web accessibility standards established by the W3C, the international web standards organization.

To earn the GCA certification, publishers must submit e-book files to a Benetech content architect, who checks to see if the content conforms to accessibility guidelines. Among the 100-plus features on that checklist are color and contrast, proper navigation and descriptive metadata for visual assets. The architect issues a report after the evaluation; if any features are missing, the publisher fixes them and submits the files for another round of review.

Publishers that earn Benetech’s GCA certification will also have that metadata publicly displayed in Vitalsource, a distributor of online textbooks and other digital materials used by more than 7,000 educational institutions.

Since mid-2017, Benetech piloted the GCA program with nearly a dozen publishers (among them Macmillan). Several others will soon get the certification, according to Turner. All of them so far have had to change their production processes, which can take a couple weeks to six months, he adds. “We have yet to see a book from a publisher that is perfect the first time.”

For Macmillan, which publishes textbooks primarily in the high school and higher education markets, the effort entailed revisiting and updating publishing workflows—an “exciting and challenging process,” in the words of Rachel Comerford, the publisher’s senior director of content standards and accessibility. “What it involves, with our production and design team, is breaking down every element of our e-book and looking at it piecemeal, and asking ‘What can we do to make each piece more accessible?’”

Benetech charges publishers a one-time “accreditation” fee that ranges from $2,000 to $8,000, depending on the complexity of the book production process. (Publishers pay per book production line, not per title. Most will only have one production line, says Turner.) There is also an annual fee, from $1,500 to $6,000, to keep the certification. That yearly fee also covers quarterly spot-checks by Benetech to ensure that the publisher is up to date with any changes to accessibility standards.

Those fees cover most of Benetech’s cost to maintain the GCA program, says Turner. It is also partly supported by a five-year, $42.5 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education in 2017. (The majority of that funding is earmarked for Bookshare.)

Those fees are not insignificant, but Turner argues the investment is worthwhile if publishers want their materials to reach more students. As many as one in five U.S. children have learning and attention challenges, and 11 percent of college students have a learning impairment. State education procurement offices, including those in Texas and Tennessee, require digital textbooks to be in compliance with accessibility standards as part of their evaluations.

There’s an economic incentive for publishers as well, he adds. “It can be super expensive for publishers to go back and retrofit a book with accessibility features. If you can build those in, it just becomes the normal cost of what you do.”

Including accessibility features should be the default, not an addition, in the publishing workflow, says Comerford. She offers this culinary analogy: “When you make a chocolate chip cookie, you bake the chocolate with the cookie; you don’t add the chocolate later on.”

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